Flash player not available.
Richard Brautigan: Shooting up the Countryside
by Helen Donlon?
Richard Gary Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington on the 30th January 1935. The American post-war years he grew up in were pervaded by a cultural and environmental regeneration where for many like himself, the future seemed somewhat empty of promise, although the new youth were growing up with a renewed optimism. The Great Outdoors flourished as the sons and daughters of the land of Hemingway? and Thoreau exploited the fishing and hunting idyll, scouting forest and seeking freshwater stream. Richard Brautigan, raised only by his mother (his father allegedly left her when she was pregnant) was no exception to this rule. What he lacked in academic discipline, he more than made up for in his outdoor pursuits and adventures, early experiences which remained stamped upon the personality of his writing and lifestyle for the rest of his life. An outsider at school, he channeled his energies into the simple pleasures immediately surrounding him, later developing a special penchant for fishing and shooting.
In later years "when fame put its feathery crowbar under his rock", he was always reticent when it came to talking about his deprived childhood, but he retained an unceasing love towards and childhood nostalgia for nature, following closely in the footsteps of Papa Hemingway, not least of all in the way he decided to end his life.
In 1954, Brautigan left his home, his mother and younger sister, Barbara, and headed for the city - arriving in San Francisco. During the late fifties, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had opened the City Lights bookstore at Broadway and Columbus, and Allen Ginsberg? was a baggage handler at the Greyhound bus station, although he had already read Howl in public. The poet Ron Loewinsohn? recalled meeting Richard at the time, and remembered how Richard had walked up to him and handed him a handwritten poem which was called "A Correction" and it went "Cats walk on little cat feet and fogs walk on little fog feet, Carl". Brautigan was delighted when Loewinsohn found the poem funny and they immediately became friends.
Also around this time Brautigan met Virginia Adler, who became his first wife, and with whom he had a daughter, Ianthe, born in 1960. Within a year he was writing the book that brought him immediate recognition as a cult figure and made him spokesman for a new generation, caused an underground movement named after the book to be formed, brought Life magazine to his doorstep, and even had a college named after it. Trout Fishing in America was translated into 15 languages. It was first published in 1967, the year of the Monterey Pop Festival, of nationwide demonstrations across the USA against the Vietnam War, Norman Mailer and Noam Chomsky and Robert Lowell? marched to the Pentagon with thousands of others to "levitate" it (as documented in Mailer's award-winning "The Armies of the Night"). It was the year that the Haight-Ashbury was the centre of the universe, of love, peace and LSD.
Although Brautigan was in many ways the archetypal hippie, he never took drugs, preferring alcohol, mostly in wild binges. He was involved for a while with the San Francisco Diggers, a self-supporting group without obvious "leaders"... one of whom was Emmett Grogan, author of the cult autobiographical novel Ringolevio. The Diggers organised free events and "happenings", preparing free meals which they would dole out on the street to anyone in need. Peter Berg, one of the founding members of the Diggers remembered Brautigan, "Before he was rich, Richard hung out with The Diggers. But if you asked him about the class system he would reply "there are no classes in a lake' his point being that nature is grander than classes." [Richard would walk the Haight with fellow Diggers and members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, brandishing a mirror which he would place before passersby with the words "know thyself."]
Grove Press had published A Confederate General from Big Sur in 1964, and at the time it had only sold a meagre 743 copies. As a result of this they dropped Trout Fishing in America. Donald Allen first published Trout Fishing In America at the Four Seasons Press and sold 29,000 copies of it before it was bought by Delacorte. Eventually it sold way over 2,000,000 copies, and it was an almost immediate success overseas. That was the year Brautigan got rich. The irony was that he was in the middle of San Francisco, home of the Beat generation, yet suddenly he was more popular and a hell of a lot richer than his more literary peers. This surprised many of the Beat writers as Richard's style of writing had always been considered very naÃ¯ve and simplistic by the Beats. Ferlinghetti had said that "as a writer I was always waiting for Richard to grow up". The peak moment must have been the day Life magazine did a six-page spread on Brautigan, on the day that students of the Trout Fishing in America college were parading down the streets carrying huge cardboard trout.
Fairly soon, Richard was immersed in writing, churning out novel after novel. During the 1966-67 semester he had been Poet In Residence at California Institute of Technology. In 1968 he was awarded the National Endowment For The Arts. He was living in Bolinas, an old area in Marin County, alongside other contemporary writers and poets, writing In Watermelon Sugar, a novel about a small community of peers living in a utopian landscape, existing day to day on small pleasures, but threatened by a gang of distopians from the neighbouring community of The Forgotten Works. Many have thought that the Watermelon Sugar community, called iDEATH was built on an idealised version of Bolinas — a recent trip to Bolinas made me see why — and The Forgotten Works represented the downtown San Francisco across the bay, which was fast becoming a refuge for disenchanted people who had come to the city with flowers in their hair looking for Scott McKenzie's idyll. The writer Keith Abbott remembered visiting Richard at the house in Bolinas on an evening when Joanne Kyger?, Don Allen?, Bobbie Louise Hawkins and her husband Robert Creeley? had been invited up to dinner. "Just before dinner was served, Richard made a big show of putting on a Grateful Dead record. He said that he had been saving the record as a surprise for Creeley. Bob nodded his thanks. When the first cut started Creeley brought his head up abruptly. "This is my favourite cut on that record" he announced. Richard beamed happily. As Creeley listened to the song Richard told a story of all the obstacles that he had encountered during the day in his attempt to find this particular record for Bob. Content that he had made Creeley happy, Richard went back to the kitchen to attend to dinner. When the song was over, Creeley got up, went over to the stereo and, trying to play the cut again, raked the needle across the record, ruining it. "Uh-oh" he said. Then he went back to the couch and resumed his discussion. At the sound of the record's being ruined, Richard came rushing out of the kitchen and stood there, watching the whole "uh-oh" performance by Creeley. Going over to the stereo he brought out a second copy of the album from the stack alongside it. In his own funny, precise way, Richard congratulated himself. "I'm, ready for Bob this time" he boasted. Then he went on to relate how Creeley had wrecked the very same album on a previous visit." [From Downstream From Trout Fishing in America by Keith Abbott]
The same year, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster a small book of poems, was published; followed shortly by Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt. Many people will remember this as the year that Janis Joplin? and Jimi Hendrix? died. It was also the year that the American National Guard killed four Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University. In this year Richard told his friend Margot Patterson Doss?, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist that he had never had a birthday party, and she said he should throw one at her place. The whole place was decorated with shoals of fish, Kentucky Fried Chicken did the catering and at the time of blowing out the candles on his cake, Richard said "this is the Age of Aquarius. The candles will blow themselves out." It was his thirty-fifth birthday and he was in the presence of many of the prominent artists and poets of the moments including Gregory Corso?, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg?, Gary Snyder and Robert Duncan. Richard's literary career was soaring as well. Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar and The Pill Versus The Springhill Mining Disaster were published in one volume in 1970. The writer Tom McGuane? said "He seems crazy with optimism. Like some widely gifted Rotarian who wants you to come to his town, he seems assured and sincere."
In 1971, The Abortion and The Revenge of the Lawn, a book of short stories were published. The latter was a mosaic of snapshot reminiscences, and included two chapters which had apparently been "lost' from Trout Fishing in America. It was around this time that Brautigan made his first trip to the McGuane ranch, later to be immortalised in McGuane's book and movie, Rancho Deluxe, Richard's drinking was becoming increasingly heavy and he would get desperate to be out of San Francisco when he felt he had had enough. He loved Montana, and he had great respect for McGuane with whom he regularly went shooting. McGuane's ranch was in Paradise Valley, and soon the ranch became a hive of social activity, as people were always visiting, often with the result that they would grow so enamoured of the place they would never leave, instead opting to buy land themselves in the area. Richard was one of these people. McGuane says "Although he wasn't the type to handle the practicalities of rugged ranch living, he saw himself as very much of a Westerner. He was always full of himself, mostly in a nice way, and his personal mythography of himself included a sense that west of the Mississippi was his terrain to raid for language and imagery. He had a quirky antiquarian air. He was, in some strange way, hell-bent on the image of himself as a sort of Mark Twain?, funky-looking old-timer."
During this time Richard had ceased to deliver lectures or grant interviews, and his drinking got heavier. He had virtually stopped writing too, although he always told friends he was working on something which was nearly finished. The most remarkable book of those years was The Hawkline Monster, a gothic western which cameoed the contrastive adventures of Greer and Cameron as wild cowboys in a standard western setting and then in a Frankenstein-type, almost opium-glazed wilderness at the home of professor Hawkline where the predominant force is that of the "chemicals", a half-finished scientific experiment which comes to life and takes over the minds and perceptions of the characters, rendering them insensible. The next novel, Willard and His Bowling Trophies contained an odd erotic narrative. Like many of his later works, Willard is almost totally devoid of dramatic action, in contrast to his earlier work. There are many instances in the book where the characters suffer moments of iconic arrest and seem to be constantly flitting between being alive and dead. The irony and black humour phase in his writing career had truly arrived, seen even more vividly in Sombrero Fallout, a novel about internal conflict and dissension. The story supposedly takes place in an hour.
Sombrero Fallout and Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork, a return to the poetic spirit of his early work, were written in the year that Richard was first making it big in Japan. During his stay there he was sinking into heavy depression, and alienating all his friends at home by telephoning them long distance during the early hours of the morning. It was during this time that he met a Japanese girl called Aki, who soon became his second wife. He was a great success in Tokyo as the Japanese literati was fascinated with his beautiful and innocent haiku poems. He loved Tokyo and its neon lights of which he said "They remind me of my childhood, when neon meant magic, excitement, romance. The neon lights of Tokyo give me back the eyes of a child."
Although in Japan he was read by intellectuals, avant-garde people who were priding themselves on this new discovery in American literature, at home his popularity as a writer was quickly fading. In 1978 he wrote The Tokyo-Montana Express and June 30th-June 30th. It seemed as though he was in some sort of personal and literary dilemma between the new found joys of the bright lights big city Tokyo scene, and his outdoor life in Livingstone, Montana. Subsequent trips home found him more and more miserable and devoid of friends. He was deserted by many of those close to him because of his drinking, and more, he was becoming financially unstable. His marriage to Aki had turned into a failure. Around the time of Sombrero Fallout, Helen Brann?, his agent felt he should put the book aside and told him so. "The next day I received a letter saying "Goodbye". A two-line letter as if her were writing to the bank.
Sometime in October 1985, Richard put the barrel of a .44 magnum in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Later when friends called, worried that he hadn't been seen for some time, they got an answering machine with a message left by Richard, only eventually the batteries wore down and all they got was a warbled voice and the same message. That's when the panic set in.
Peter Fonda? recalled "The boys had gotten together to go shooting. Everyone missed him and we began calling San Francisco. As it turned out, those freaks in Bolinas never went in to check what was happening. If it hadn't been for Becky, my wife, I think Richard would still be there. Checks had been returned and even his agent hadn't been able to get hold of him."
Richard is remembered for his sensitivity, generosity and joie de vivre, as well as his wit and surreal visions of life both in and out of his texts. He has been compared to Vonnegut? and Pynchon for the way in which he hilariously characterises society and its misfits. And yet the torture of loneliness and desperation in Sombrero Fallout and So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away are just as typical of his style.
"The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them, but through the organic process of music the books had become virgins again, they wore their ancient copyrights like new maidenheads." (Trout Fishing In America)
Richard Brautigan was a veritable sixties figure and perhaps the definitive hippie writer. I think that was a matter of circumstance. Richard will always be an anachronistic figure to me, a writer who moved in Beat circles, yet wrote nothing like they did, did not believe in any of the real Beat ethics and never took drugs. He was as lost in the city sometimes as he was lonely and sad in the country. In his time he received far more criticism than praise, and was only truly accepted by the mass when he was rich, and giving it all away. There are still people out there who will love and remember him for the rest of their days, [and the proof is in the republication, after twenty years of many of his works into various languages, as interest in him sees a long-expected resurgence.]